Not many films are brave enough to confront the dying throws of a passionate marriage. Take Sam Mendes out of the equation and Hollywood directors rarely stray into such downbeat territory, but the riches are there for all to see in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. An achingly romantic, poignant and surprisingly funny film, this unflinching account of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy’s (Michelle Williams) disintegrating relationship is as honest a piece of film-making you will see all year.

Where the film truly excels though is its brevity in content. By exploring the couple’s initial meeting and then subsequent break up Cianfrance removes all weight from the process. What we are left with is sparks, chemistry and sadness as the film jumps from Dean and Cindy’s charming hook up to the painful sincerity of their heartbreaking split. Unfussy direction and a sparse, moving soundtrack (Grizzly Bear contribute some gems, pleasingly from the album ‘Yellow House’) allow the characters space to develop, and despite not seeing the bulk of the relationship both points of view feel rounded and real. Gosling seems to relish playing Dean’s blue collar brashness and he’s a revelation here – whether it’s charming Cindy’s socks off with his ukulele or touchingly decorating an old timer’s place in his removal man job, the 30 year old endears throughout. In fact, it’s tough to see Cindy’s reasons for splitting up, but William’s portrayal of a woman maturing beyond her years feels incredibly personal, particularly in a revealing scene in an abortion clinic that’s worthy of her Oscar nomination itself.

Criticism has been thrown about labelling Blue Valentine an actor’s project serving an indulgent cast, and certain scenes feed this logic. Locked in the ‘future room’ of a themed hotel, Dean and Cindy thrash it out, sexually and verbally. With the cinema squirming as the camera gaze holds firm we’re trapped in with them, vulnerable and emotional. If this is an actor’s project then it’s a successful one.

By Ian Roebuck

Originally published in issue 25 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. February 2010